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BLOOMINGTON — With the closing of the Mitsubishi Motors North America plant — and the direct loss of about 1,200 jobs – it should surprise no one that McLean County employment figures showed a decline in the manufacturing sector and overall non-farm employment in 2016.

But there was only a slight decline in the county's largest employment sector, financial services, which includes two of its three largest employers, State Farm and Country Financial.

And growth in the leisure and hospitality sector didn't just increase last year — since 2008, it has outpaced the state average and has been well above growth in surrounding areas.

McLean County recorded a total of 93,593 non-farm jobs in 2016. That was down from 94,610 in both 2015 and 2014 and a high of 96,568 in 2012, according to figures from the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council.

The financial activities sector was up slightly last year, growing from 20,200 in 2015 to 20,425 in 2016.

State Farm, McLean County's largest employer, ended 2016 with about 15,000 employees in Bloomington, similar to the end of 2015, according to State Farm spokesperson Holly Anderson.

“We have and will continue to fluctuate around 15,000 employees locally,” she said.

Hiring, retirements and other factors cause the fluctuation and it's common for hundreds of employees to move in and out of the company headquarters, said Anderson — a trend State Farm expects to continue.

“All of our main buildings remain fully utilized and we have no plans to change the location of our corporate headquarters,” said Anderson.

Employment remained relatively unchanged in the education and health services sector, which includes McLean County's second largest employer, Illinois State University.

The total in 2016 was 11,100, compared to 11,200 in 2015.

With uncertainty about the state's budget, ISU has eliminated or left vacant about 120 non-faculty positions in the past three-plus years, according to Greg Alt, ISU's vice president of finance and planning.

The university currently has 3,506 non-student employees, down from 3,560 a year ago, according to Alt.

“We've made the adjustments” to the budget, said Alt. “We think we've probably leveled off.”

The university has about 5,570 student workers, down a few hundred over the past few years, according to Alt.

“Based on current budget assumptions, we also see that number remaining stable at the 5,500 range for the near term,” he said.

Recent announcements of several stores closing or about to close at Eastland Mall has also focused attention on the retail sector.

“Any time you see a big yellow 'closing' sign on a store, people kind of panic,” said Aimee Ingalls, director of business assistance for the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council. “Am I concerned about that, yes. But this community traditionally has been able to absorb that.” 

The store-closings announced at Eastland, including Macy's and MC Sports, were part of a national trend, rather than local market forces. 

“The retail industry has changed dramatically,” noted Charlie Moore, CEO of the McLean County Chamber of Commerce, pointing to more people making online purchases.

But while Eastland is seeing several businesses leave, the old Colonial Plaza, which formerly housed Kmart and Circuit City, has been revitalized as Empire Crossing, with the opening of Dick's Sporting Goods, Pet Smart and other stores.

Jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector have grown 14 percent since 2008, from 10,175 to 11,550.

That compares to an 11 percent growth rate statewide during the same period and single-digit percentage increases in that time for the Champaign, Decatur, Peoria and Springfield metro areas.

“People take their entertainment very seriously,” said Ingalls, noting that Bloomington-Normal is among the leaders nationwide in restaurants per capita.

The category also reflects growth in businesses as diverse as fitness centers and gaming facilities.

Ingalls said EDC staff members have visited 60 companies locally in the last 18 months and 87 percent of them said they expected growth in their products or services. 

“We see that as an opportunity for growth with businesses that are here,” she said.

Asked if they have trouble recruiting employees, 61 percent said they did not have a problem, according to Ingalls.

For those that did, the problem tended to be for sales positions or lower-skilled jobs, she said. But some seeking employees with technical skills had to “cast a wider net,” Ingalls added.

Moore said efforts are being made to ensure students are graduating from high schools, community colleges and universities with the skills employers are seeking.

Particularly with talented university graduate who come from elsewhere, Moore said, “we need to set that hook and encourage them to stay.”

Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota

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Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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